South Korea reacts to ‘Aim High in Creation!’
As I fly into South Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is celebrating its 70th birthday. Two hundred kilometres from Seoul’s bustling tourist district, in Pyongyang’s May Day Stadium, 10,000 North Korean gymnasts are performing a dazzling tribute to “Peace” and “Friendship”. On a massive analog screen – made by children flashing cards like human pixels – a video of Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in holding hands plays on a triumphant loop. It’s the first DPRK Mass games since the April 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, which formalised the two Koreas’ commitment to ending the war that’s divided them for 68 years.
Such a scene was inconceivable when I filmed at the Mass games six years ago, during a three-week shoot in North Korea for my documentary Aim High in Creation! In 2012, the newly anointed Kim Jong-un was strengthening the DPRK’s nuclear stockpile and the yearly South Korea–United States joint military exercises were in full swing. The prospect of Moon and Kim, arms entwined, doing a two-step over the DMZ’s heavily fortified 38th parallel was as remote as the host of The Celebrity Apprentice becoming leader of the “Free World”.
Until the Moon–Kim summit, North Korean content was widely censored in the South, with North Koreans frequently portrayed in South Korean popular culture as oppressed, brainwashed automatons. But now, in the midst of a tentative peace, interest in the “real” North Korea is running hot. Enter Lim Sung-chul, head of the Doc Forest distribution and production company, who, in an act of bravery or insanity, has picked up my film for a South Korean multiplex release. It is the first Australian feature documentary to receive such an honour.
Lim first saw Aim High in Creation! at an under-the-radar screening in the DMZ city of Paju in 2014. He’s taking a huge financial risk in bringing the film to South Korea, covering his $48,000 publicity spend by working as a first assistant director on a big-budget French–South Korean feature film. He needs to sell 10,000 tickets just to break even.
Lim’s risk is also political: Aim High is seen as controversial, even in the West. In the film, I learn propaganda techniques from North Korea’s top filmmakers, so I can make a North Korean-style drama to stop a coal seam gas mine in Sydney. The ABC was so spooked by the documentary, it buried it in a late-night timeslot. The Murdoch media labelled me, incorrectly, an “apologist” for the Kim regime. While the film screened across Europe, won a St Petersburg International Media Forum prize for its “nostalgic” parallels with Soviet Russia and was bought by Netflix after the Sony hacking scandal, its underlying message – that Western advertising and North Korean propaganda are equally insidious – means it’s unlikely the film will strike box office gold.
Lim seems unfazed by his high-stakes gamble. The witty North Korea-inspired trailer he’s uploaded on the popular platform Naver has reached 10,000 views in two days. But early media reports on the film, retitled Anna Learns Filmmaking in Pyongyang for South Korean audiences, have slammed the “amateurism” of North Korean movies and several multiplexes have rejected the documentary sight unseen. Clearly, President Moon’s vision of a more “friendly” North Korea is not shared by everyone.
Driving to our first media screening at Daehan Cinema in downtown Seoul, Lim explains that the only North Korean documentaries South Koreans see are Western exposés about gulags and starvation. “I hate the Kim regime but like the North Korean people,” he says. “I chose your film because it is funny and human and totally unlike the boring foreign stuff we usually get.”
With the US still insisting North Korea is not to be trusted on nuclear weapons, the Australian embassy has so far ignored Lim’s invitation to attend the film’s opening night. A physical attack by right-wing extremists is also on the cards. “If they do that, it will be great publicity for the film,” Lim says with a shrug.
Inside the cinema, 30 journalists from South Korea’s leading print, online and broadcast news outlets sit slumped in velvet seats. “It’s Monday morning and South Korean reporters like to drink, so don’t expect them to be alert,” Lim says, and hands me the microphone. I introduce myself in shaky Korean and hold up my 1987 Pyongyang edition of The Cinema and Directing by former DPRK leader and Hollywood film buff Kim Jong-il, to explain my obsession with North Korean films. The TV cameras zoom in on the book as though it’s some rare fossil. This is the only known copy in South Korea – and the first North Korean object most of the journalists have seen. The South Korean police warned Lim he will be jailed if he orders a copy of it online.
After the media screening, Lim scans the first reviews over an icy bowl of Pyongyang naengmyeon, a North Korean buckwheat noodle dish enjoying new popularity since the Moon–Kim summit. The JTBC network is running a positive segment with links to the trailer, there’s a four-star review and the Daehan multiplex has picked up the film. The consensus is that anyone wanting to know about North Korea should see Aim High. “You helped change their minds,” says Lim, grinning over a celebratory “Bomb” – beer with a shot of soju.
To capitalise on the interest around Aim High, Lim throws me into a five-day publicity tour. As I speak with reporters, punters and North Korean defectors in cinemas, bars and TV studios across Seoul, a conflicted picture emerges of a people both euphoric and worried about the momentous possibility of reunification with the North.
Jin Min-ji, a writer for the conservative JoongAng Daily, says younger South Koreans “are not interested in reunification, they regard North Koreans as a nuisance”. Sunny Yu, a reporter for Hankyoreh Media, says South Koreans “do dream about reunification. The North Koreans are our brothers and sisters. But this is also about Japan, the US and China. So, we have to wait.”
“The reality of North Korea glimpsed in your film is like a whole new wonderland,” says Kim Seong-hoon, the leading movie critic for Cine21. “After the summit, South Korean filmmakers are very interested in North Korean cinema. Before, we couldn’t get information because of the NIS [National Intelligence Service] – they accused many innocent people of being spies.”
After North and South Korean athletes teamed up for the Winter Olympics, South Korean filmmakers now plan to collaborate with their DPRK colleagues, too, on a new joint Korea movie. “In 2019, it’s the 100-year anniversary of movie-making in South Korea, and the start of a new friendship with the North,” explains No Cut News journalist Yoo Won-jeong. “I thought oppression had totally penetrated North Koreans’ daily lives. But your movie shows they are not entirely brainwashed, they can express themselves, and they have self-esteem and dignity. And their filmmakers have the same stubbornness and passion as South Korean filmmakers.”
My interpreter, Sara, has her concerns. She believes US President Donald Trump has ended the annual South Korea–US war games without receiving enough concessions from the Kim regime. “We’ve given North Korea too much,” she says. Fifteen years ago, Sara hiked up North Korea’s Mount Kumgang, before a South Korean tourist was shot there in 2008. The death came just as relations between the North and South were seemingly thawing, after the then president of South Korea, Lee Myung-bak, offered to resume talks and provide food aid to the North.
On the outskirts of Seoul, a former North Korean hacker I interviewed in 2012 agrees to meet if I conceal his identity. “Mr Pak” is now a wealthy man. He shelved his dream of directing a thriller about his espionage work for the DPRK in order to advise the Moon government about the Kim regime. He has the president’s chief of staff, Im Jeong-seok, on speed dial. Over a quick Chinese lunch, Mr Pak – who is about to fly to the Congo to trade solar panels – confirms North Korean conditions have significantly improved under Kim Jong-un. The young leader wants the North to open up further, but Mr Pak is pessimistic. “It will never happen,” he says. “The other players – Russia, China and the US – don’t think of the soul of our country, they only think of their own advantage. I am worried that if reunification does happen, there will be a massive fight.”
“Mr Lee” is the president of the Association of North Korean Defectors, one of many privately funded groups helping DPRK escapees build new lives in South Korea. Mr Lee reveals that defectors have dropped to fewer than 2000 a year under Kim Jong-un. North Koreans can now download South Korean TV shows on their mobiles and are aware of the thriving capitalist nation over the border, but are prospering under the DPRK’s relaxed trading rules. Mr Lee fears that reunification will expose the huge economic disparities between the two Koreas, and be “a total disaster, unless North Koreans are allowed to own their own properties, putting them on a par with landowners in the South”.
But there’s still the emotional cost of Korea’s ongoing division, best captured by Yuna Jung, a North Korean defector-turned-TV host who interviews me in Digital Media City. As a child, Jung believed Kim Jong-il could “walk on water, spin through the air and make thunder”. She says when her father, a high-ranking DPRK general, confided to her that the dictator “is only human”, it was “like discovering Santa Claus is not real”.
At 16, Jung crossed the frozen Tumen River into China, determined to “live a freer life”. She worked in a hairdressing salon for five years to help her father, mother and brother all relocate to South Korea. Watching the North Korean filmmakers, office workers and children going about their lives in Aim High, Jung’s eyes well with tears. “I miss my country,” she says. “I feel so guilty – I left my grandparents behind.”
Maybe, if Moon’s delicate diplomatic dance with the North pays off, she will see them once again.
Anna Broinowski’s trip to Seoul for the cinema release of Aim High in Creation! was generously supported by Create NSW.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 29, 2018 as "South of the border". Subscribe here.